Most fitness blogs tend to have weight-focused undertones. The language that the media uses when talking about exercise emphasize terms like “tone” and “slim” and “body fat percentage” which drives me completely crazy. Of course, there are metabolic benefits to exercise (specifically in terms of blood sugar control) and exercise does have stress-relieving effects when a person’s overall stress levels are within certain parameters. But contrary to popular belief, exercise isn’t healthy because it promotes weight loss.
Yes, of course, exercising uses energy and when our overall energy expenditures are greater than our energy intake, we lose body mass. But becoming a smaller person isn’t inherently healthful. Exercise offers health benefits for many (but not all) people for reasons that are completely independent of the scale. However, since the cultural conversation is often ignorant of this *fundamental* truth, the types of exercises that are most often talked about tend to be cardio (like running) and resistance training (like weight lifting.) Again, don’t get me wrong, both of those can be healthy components of a person’s exercise routine, as they are part of my own exercise routine. But they’re not the only types of exercise we need.
In this post, I want to challenge you to think differently about exercise if you’ve always believed the benefits to come from the calorie burn. In the chiropractic world, there’s a saying I like a lot that goes like this: “Movement is life.” I know I’ve shared it before, and there is a lot that can be parsed out from that simple phrase. But the thing I want you to focus on here is actually what that phrase doesn’t say. It does not say “Calorie burn is life.” That would be completely backwards, and I can’t picture a scenario in which that would make sense. Calories are energy, and energy sustains life. In some ways, more calories = better because it enables more life. Of course, there are limitations to such a philosophy, but if one thing sticks with you from this, remember that the benefits of exercise stretch so much further than weight, and have nothing to do with calories.
The benefits of exercise have nothing to do with the calorie burn.Tweet
A few years ago, I wrote a post all about breathing…more specifically how important it is to stop sucking in our stomachs and allow our bellies to rhythmically expand with respiration. When we ‘suck it in’ and hold our stomachs, we end up engaging in dysfunctional breathing patterns, which often involves using muscles in our chest and ribs to force inspiration when those muscles were never designed for that job.
The result of these dysfunctional breathing patterns is that we end up losing strength in our core. This is a problem because maintaining intra-abdominal pressure is vital for protecting our spine and preventing injury. If you’ve ever ‘thrown out’ your back, you know how awful the recovery period can be. Whether these injuries involve straining a muscle, spraining a ligament, or herniating a disc (which can injure the spinal cord), they aren’t fun and they often necessitate a long, painful recovery period. Interestingly, the main function of our spinal muscles isn’t to support our back, but rather to initiate small movements and promote small-scale stability. Large movements often are initiated by our abdominal muscles, which, when contracted, create a large column of stability that prevents against injury during lifting, bending, and twisting.
When we aren’t breathing properly, we lose muscle tone in our abdominals which increases risk of injury. It also strains our chest and rib muscles, which can lead to neck, shoulder, and thoracic pain. (Yuck!)
So, how should we breathe?
I think this graphic is helpful (found it on the internet) because it demonstrates how inspiration (breathing in) requires relaxation and expiration (breathing out) requires muscle contraction. Practice abdominal breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing, transversus abdominus breathing, or TVA breathing) by “pulling” your navel inward and upward as you exhale. You may feel a slight burning sensation, as you feel when doing other forms of resistance training.
2. Warm Up/Cool Down
Another key way to prevent injury is to avoid jumping right into intense exercise. Muscles that aren’t “warmed up” are more likely to be strained. When we slowly ease into movement, we maintain the proper balance and alignment of our muscles and support proper exercise form. Poor form during exercise (in everything from walking, to running, to lifting weights) increases the risk of injury, both acute injury like from twisting an ankle as well as from chronic injury and the development of arthritis. When we use the “wrong” muscles for a movement (like what happens with chest breathing) we end up putting abnormal stresses on joints which can wear down the cartilage and lead to that “bone on bone” type of arthritis which leads to joint replacement surgery.
The diet industry likes to blame body weight for things like joint pain and arthritis, but a person’s body weight has very little to do with it. Injury results from either normal stress on abnormal joints (like with re-injuring an inflamed joint) or by applying abnormal stress to normal joints, which is most common. When we aren’t using the proper balance of muscles because we use incorrect training methods, or because we don’t take the time to warm up our muscles before exercise (and cool down afterwards), it creates tightness and “pulling” that disrupts the alignment or “tracking” of our joints, leading to injury.
This image might be a little confusing if you don’t have a background in human anatomy, but it’s pretty clear to see that in the left diagram, the knee cap is well-centered and there’s space between it and the femur. In the middle and right diagrams, you can see that the patella is off center, which decreases the amount of space in the joint and causes the bones to “rub” together. Ouch!
Stretching is usually part of a warm up and cool down exercise, but it doesn’t always need to be done in relation to exercise. Sometimes the ‘wear and tear’ of daily life (i.e. sitting at a desk or working from home) create abnormal postures that lead to tightness and sore muscles. Sitting in one position too long often leads to hamstring tightness, typing all day can create a forward shoulder roll which causes neck and back pain, and hanging our heads to read our phones leads to headaches and other woes. Simple stretching routines take very little time and have enormous benefit when we actually do them.
I found this helpful stretching diagram with a quick google search for “5 minute full body stretch.” I’m sure that there are many others you can find if you take a look!
4. Postural Exercises
When it comes to posture and preventing injury (or the sore muscles that result from desk jobs), stretching is only one piece of the puzzle. We also need to strengthen the correct muscles so that we have the endurance we need to maintain posture. Postural muscles are just like any other kind of muscle in that the old adage “Use it or lose it” rings true. Slumping forward or arching backwards are two examples of incorrect postures that can lead to injury, back pain, or other bodily aches.
Check out this diagram below. If you don’t hold yourself like the green guy on the right does, consider working with a physical therapist of chiropractor to improve your posture.
If you loved what you read here, check out these related posts:
- 10 Reasons to Exercise (Unrelated to Weight)
- What’s the Point of Exercise, Anyway?
- 3 Reasons Exercise Isn’t Healthy
- How Much Exercise Do We Really Need?